This weekend marks the 18th anniversary of DIANI, which began as a big dream back in 2002 when I was rebuilding my life after a series of family tragedies. My business has grown to include three boutiques and an online store. While celebrating looks a little different this year, and not exactly what I had envisioned, the one thing I've learned over the years is that, as in life, business can be unpredictable. It's through these ups and downs that I've pivoted, evolved and transformed DIANI, and myself as a business woman into what I am today. It's been a privilege to invite talented people into the company to help share the vision and to continue to curate collections of the very best in clothing, accessories and home goods just for you. I'm eternally grateful for the support you've shown me.
It's been a while since I sat down to look back on my business, so Jeffrey helped me reflect on my life as a business woman, how things have changed over the years, and where I see DIANI evolving from here.
Check out the video below.
If you don't get a chance to watch the video, here are highlights from my chat with Jeffrey below:
What originally inspired you to open DIANI?
As I have further back to look now on this whole experience, I think my inspiration goes deeper than what I had originally thought. Yes, I had recently graduated with a degree in fashion design from Kingston University outside of London and, yes I was inspired to be creative and curate a point of view. But deep down there were so many markers growing up that laid a foundation of confidence that I have in myself. That’s not to say that I don’t get terrified or daunted by what I’ve built, but I know deep down if what I’m working on is coming from a place of authenticity, I can’t go wrong. I am forever grateful for my upbringing – being born in Kenya and raised in England by parents who were very grounded, fun loving and adventurous. My father was a businessman and successful rugby player and I idolized him. He literally could do no wrong in my book and was my biggest fan. Whatever it was that I was into at any given period in my childhood, and there were some wacky things, like wanting to be a boxer after watching Rocky for the first time, he would say, “go for it”. Then I wanted to play tennis at Wimbledon, so he took me to all the coaching camps there were. I wanted to be an equestrian, so he got me into a riding camp. The list goes on. In turn what I was quietly observing with him was his dedication to his job and his attention to detail. He was Retail Operation Director for a bakery chain in England called Greggs (still around and bigger than ever). He would take me around the local Greggs shops as a child and his office sometimes after work and I was fascinated by the “magic” he appeared to create. When I was old enough to have a Saturday job, one of the Greggs bakeries was where I worked, putting pastries in the oven and ringing up customers, and I loved it. I was able to count up multiple items in my head and I loved greeting everyone with a smile and seeing how happy I could make them as they left. It was my first experience of making a difference in a stranger’s day. That’s where the retail part of my DNA was born. The ritual of opening up in the morning, turning on the lights, sweeping the floor, firing up the ovens, stocking the shelves with fresh baked goods, the smell of warm bread, putting on the Greggs uniform with apron and hat... it was so exciting. And that anticipation of not knowing what the day had in store was very invigorating and something that I love to this day. There is nothing predictable about retail.
And, it shouldn't go unchecked that during my informative years, we had a female Prime Minister in England, so I was learning very early and from multiple sources, that girls could grow up to be anything they wanted to be with enough tenacity and hard work.
My father died of cancer at age 51, when I was in my early 20’s and had just graduated. My mother had also recently died by suicide – turning my whole world upside down. My biggest motivation was making my parents proud. I wanted my mostly idyllic upbringing to amount to something and the education they had given me and all the experiences and adventures to guide me to a place where I could draw strength, knowing that I had the tools to move through life on my own and make good choices and bold ones too.
How I got to California is another longer story but in short, I had interned at Patagonia in Ventura while I was studying for my degree. I fell in love with someone while I was there but we went our separate ways when I returned to England to finish my degree. We reconnected as my father was passing and he invited me to visit him in CA. Our whirlwind romance progressed to marriage and me moving to CA to start a new life and ultimately discover my desire to start my own retail business. My business was all consuming and my marriage didn't work out for that reason amongst others. We got divorced after 6 years.
What inspires you today?
The core DNA of DIANI has three pillars that guide me: Inspiration, Community and Experience. Those three elements inform my daily decisions. What does it mean to inspire? Is the brand authentic and true to the core of who I am. Am I building community within our team and within our family of customers? How can I give back to my community, not just my local community but the greater community that we are all part of in the world. Am I offering an experience in store and online that is memorable, giving, and caring. Am I offering that experience to my team and is the culture of the company all those things? I’m also looking for these three pillars when sourcing new designers and forging partnerships with them. Do they mirror my values, are they thoughtful with their approach to how they make their clothing, their pottery, their skincare, etc? I’m very inspired by how we can all live more consciously and deliberately by choosing the best for ourselves and for our planet.
How has DIANI evolved over the last 18 years?
I am constantly amazed at how fast things have changed during the period I've been in business. When I started with one store, it was just me and a friend who would help me a few hours a week. I didn’t pay myself for the first several years and was so grateful that anyone came in and bought from me. It would light me up when I sold a t-shirt. I think the first week I was open I maybe sold a handful of tee shirts and a couple of candles that I’m convinced were pity purchases from passersby who were hoping to do their part to keep me in business. And sure enough, the word got out that I was committed, hungry and eager to please. When I started, there was no online shopping, we didn’t send emails or texts and there was no social media. So the only way to connect with a customer was through physical connection. With my experience at Greggs and living in different countries, I find it easy to connect with people and am always curious to learn what makes people tick. I would scribble down every customer’s name and address when I helped them and I would send them a thank you letter for shopping on letterhead stationary that I had made. It was beautifully simple and very, very small. I know at the time, the store's growth felt agonizingly slow, but I’m very determined by nature and knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to give up on the dream. Fast forward to today with three stores and an online business, plus social media channels and a highly accomplished and competent team, and it’s a totally different experience. The pace is exponentially faster and the days are longer. From updating social media with fresh content daily to getting all our new goodies online, to creating weekly blog posts to stay connected to customers (even when I’m traveling or spending time on the East coast), it’s an added layer of the day to day of running retail stores. And one of the biggest parts of my job has always been, and still is, buying. What started out as buying clothes for DIANI, has evolved into buying shoes, bags and accessories for DIANI Shoes and now home and wellness goodies for DIANI Living. So, I’m constantly searching for new brands and elements that add to the storytelling of DIANI. The non stop learning, pivoting and keeping up is very hard sometimes, but I still love what I do or I wouldn’t be doing it.
How has it changed during the pandemic?
The pandemic has forced the entire world to adapt and try to get comfortable with change. Whatever your age or place of habitat, you’re affected. And I'm amazed by how resilient we are as humans. I know I’ve learned that if you break it down to basics…do I have my health, my loved ones around me, the support of friends and family and shelter? I’m lucky and I have hope and opportunity. Every day during this pandemic is an opportunity to show up for yourself, show up for your family and friends and show up for your community. And that gives me strength. My DIANI community, from my amazing team who’ve adapted, to the customers who’ve shown up for us… it’s all been very invigorating. It’s also been terrifying because none of us have experienced this before so the answers haven’t always been readily available, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. And I always say in business, as long as we have customers, we’re in business. And that's a gift, whether you’re selling one t-shirt a day or many.
What is the most challenging part of owning a business?
It has to be holding on to your personal life. Sometimes I forget what it is I like to do outside of my business. And then I have to go back to my pre-mid 20’s and revisit that person. She liked to draw and paint and play and be around animals. She liked to travel and take photographs, chat with friends on the phone. I give my all to my business and I know that it’s a large part of why I’m still in business. But as I get older I also know that I can give more to my business in different ways... by sharing more of who I am, what makes me tick, experiences I’m having. So the blog is helping me visit places of myself that have been buried a bit. And there’s more to unpack there, I just haven’t fully fleshed out the ideas.
What is one of your favorite memories from over the years?
Oh gosh, there’s too many. My very first trip to New York City the first year I opened was pretty epic. I’d never been to NYC and I thought that it was pretty much Times Square and that area so I stayed in a Novotel or Holiday Inn right there and had my first dinner at Sbarro across the street. I thought I was living the life. And I was! It’s so funny and beautiful to think back on that and how eager and green I was...makes we want to cry. I probably was crying back then for different reasons, like, “WTF am I doing?!”
I also loved our 10th anniversary party that we threw at DIANI. We had a red carpet for our customers, a DJ and bar. It was so much fun for me and my team who had been part of the journey for many of those years. And my soon-to-be husband was there with me and I felt so content and proud.
How do you manage business and your personal life?
Poorly! It’s hard for me to have boundaries when I love what I do. But I do hit that metaphorical wall from time to time and then realize that I haven’t had a day where I’m not doing something for DIANI. I’ve committed to working out as many days as I can. I do an online class in the morning and that’s been a really fun addition to my day. My husband and I always have dinner together… its’a small thing but most days we’ll end the day going for a walk together with Nala and then cook or grab takeout. We're growing a vegetable garden which has been a nice hobby and we're excited to cook more this fall…hopefully with the goodies we’ve grown.
What advice do you have for someone looking to start a business?
Success is so relative/subjective. If you asked me 18 years ago what success meant, I would say having lots of stores and traveling all over the world and having all the things. Now success to me means being able to manage what you have and to have a life that’s filled with the important things, which like I said earlier are good health, family, friends, their support and shelter. And on top of that, inspiration. I think if you’re inspired by your daily life, you’re successful. The size and scope of your business is only important in that it can sustain itself. Beyond that, it’s gravy. The richness of life comes from the experiences you’re having while inspiring, being inspired and creating a community around you that you can give to and receive from. This kind of ecosystem is where you can thrive and where I’m putting my energy as I look to the next 18 years of DIANI.
I have thoroughly enjoyed looking back on my career and sharing memories, inspiration and the evolution of DIANI with you all. I'm so thankful for your support through the years. Here's to the next 18!
Sending lots of love,
Aw I loved reading this. And I’ve been thinking of the 10 year anniversary party this week too! What a night it was, great memory. xx